Recently I spent a long weekend in NYC. It had been 12 years since I had visited the Big Apple, and I delighted in playing tourist: staying in mid-town Manhattan, attending a wedding in Long Island City and shopping in SoHo. But, despite the fact that I was visiting for pleasure, I couldn’t help but make mental notes of big city best practices.
Learning curve aside, it’s easy to see how New York’s public transportation makes living without a car a reality for so many. You name it, I took it. Buses were standing room only. Buskers danced to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” on the subway, while seasoned New Yorkers put on their best poker faces. (I couldn’t say which was more entertaining.) Taxis were convenient and warm on cold, snowy evenings. The waits were brief and the wayfinding concise. But in my opinion, the best part about public transit is the before and after… the walking, and its associated physical and mental health benefits that so many New Yorkers enjoy.
New York’s public parks are well managed and programmed, drawing large crowds despite freezing March temperatures. Bryant Park is a frequently referenced case study for public space management and it’s easy to see why. Meticulously maintained, Bryant Park had lush landscaping, a wealth of moveable tables and chairs, hospitable signage, and plenty of programming: I happened upon both an ice-skating rink and a children’s health food festival during my stop. And though I only had a half hour to spend in Central Park, the experience there was quite similar. I watched harbor seals frolicking at the Central Park Zoo, spied a second ice-skating rink, and took in the natural beauty as I wandered among joggers, tourists and locals alike on a late Sunday afternoon.
Adaptive reuse and historic preservation are alive and well in New York. Take trendy SoHo for example. Crowded streets zigzagged through the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. Decorative cast iron facades—dating back to between the 1840 to the 1880s in many cases—encompass pre-existing industrial buildings. The facades enabled buildings to attract commercial clients over the years. And then following the abandonment of a proposed elevated expressway plan, which would have devastated the area in the 1960s, the district attracted artists who utilized the buildings for living and working studios. Today, the district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, declared a National Historic Landmark and is chocked full of galleries and shops.
There’s something special about New York: the setting for so many stories, the subject of so many songs. And while there’s a lot to be learned from other cities big and small, I’m also reminded of all that’s special about Downtown Jacksonville. The small-town charm, locally owned and operated businesses, the way the Florida sun reflects off the St. Johns, and the vast possibilities for a city starting to come into its own.